A jovially combative riposte to anyone who thought that death would silence master controversialist Hitchens (Hitch-22, 2010, etc.).
Even as he lay—or sat or paced—dying in the unfamiliar confines of a hospital last year, the author had plenty to say about matters of life and death. Here, in pieces published in Vanity Fair to which are added rough notes and apothegms left behind in manuscript, Hitchens gives the strongest possible sense of his exhausting battle against the aggressive cancer spreading through his body. He waged that battle with customary sardonic good humor, calling the medical-industrial world into which he had been thrust “Tumortown.” More arrestingly, Hitchens conceived of the move from life to death as a sudden relocation, even a deportation, into another land: “The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication—as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to.” One such gesture was the physician’s plunging of fingers into the neck to gauge whether a cancer had spread into the lymph nodes, but others were more subtle, including the hushed tones and reverences that came with the business. Hitchens, famously an atheist, visited the question of whether he should take Pascal’s wager and bet on God, concluding in the negative even as good God-fearing citizens filled his inbox with assurances that God was punishing him for his blasphemies with throat cancer. A reasonable thought, Hitchens concludes, though since he’s a writer, wouldn’t such a God have afflicted his hands first?
Certainly, Hitchens died too soon. May this moving little visit to his hospital room not be the last word from him.
Hitchens (Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, 2009, etc.) offers an engrossing account of his lives as a British Navy brat, a socialist activist and a leading essayist and intellectual of our time.
Now in his early 60s, the author grew up a bookish, self-confident, lower-middle-class boy in the British provinces. He has few memories of his father, “The Commander,” a taciturn career Navy man, but recalls with warmth and affection his mother, Yvonne, who shaped his childhood. Bright, pretty and unhappily married, she yearned for a life of smart friends and witty conversation—which Christopher would later lead—and often admonished, “The one unforgivable sin is to be boring.” She committed suicide, apologizing in a note for leaving a mess (“Oh Mummy, so like you,” writes Hitchens). She never mentioned her Jewish ancestry, which the author learned about later. In this frank, often wickedly funny account, Hitchens traces his evolution as a fiercely independent thinker and enemy of people who are convinced of their absolute certainty. He describes his budding socialist days at boarding school, where he helped create a student magazine (“Ink-stained pamphleteer! Very heaven!”); his ’60s years at Balliol College, Oxford, where he protested the Vietnam War, debated at the Oxford Union and lost his virginity; and his subsequent life as a young journalist working for both mainstream and “agitational” papers in London. Writing at length about friendships with Ted Hughes, James Fenton, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, he seems always to have another fascinating encounter—a visit with his near-blind literary hero Jorge Luis Borges, a melancholy lunch with Chester Kallman shortly after his partner W.H. Auden's death—lurking in the next paragraph or footnote. Hitchens also details the many controversies in which he has engaged since moving to the United States in the early ’80s, including his defense of free expression in the Salman Rushdie affair and his support of the Iraq War. Once deemed a prodigious drinker, Hitchens notes that he now imbibes his Scotch whiskey carefully and produces more than 1,000 words per day.
Revealing and riveting. There's little about his brother, his two marriages or his children, but other memoirs may follow.
Pretty lame musings that capture but little of Nation columnist Hitchens’s not inconsiderable wit—and even less of his iconoclasm.
Having taught for some years at the New School in New York, Hitchens came upon the idea of composing a kind of ideological testament addressed to the young that would lay out his vision of the good life and offer some advice on how to achieve it. The scheme was inspired by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet—and if you did not expect such a paternal, almost contemplative tone from Hitchens, you are not alone. This is the same man, after all, who has taken potshots at Mother Teresa (The Missionary Position, not reviewed) and Princess Di alike, a “grizzled soixante-huitard” (as he calls himself) to be sure, but one who detested Bill and Hilary Clinton (and delighted in the Lewinsky scandal) every bit as much as Rush Limbaugh did. The sober mask doesn’t suit him, and most of what he lays out here as “contrarian” is strictly village-atheist stuff: the heroics of the solitary dissenter (Rosa Parks, Alexander Solzhenitsyn), the dangers of groupthink (“Beware of identity politics”), the broadening effects of travel, the importance of irony (“It’s the gin in the Campari”), the innocence of Colonel Dreyfus (just in case you wondered), and the universal brotherhood of mankind (“we are one people”). There is also a good deal of name-dropping (“my dear friend Robert Conquest,” “my Chilean friend Ariel Dorfman”) and rather more accounts of the interesting places the author has been than most readers will require. Mercifully, however, Hitchens keeps his eye on the clock and doesn’t go on much longer than most of his articles.
A damp squib from someone who ought to know better.
Vanity Fair columnist Hitchens (Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001, etc.), late of the English New Left, provides reassurance for those who’ve been staying up nights wondering whether George Orwell has any relevance in the post–Cold War world.
Orwell was right on the three big subjects of his time, Hitchens writes: imperialism, fascism, and communism. In essays like “Shooting an Elephant” and in the slightly clunky novel Burmese Days, he saw the English effort to control South Asia for the misguided, ultimately dehumanizing enterprise it was. In a flood of journalism and such novels as Animal Farm and 1984, he foresaw that the Leninist-Stalinist experiment would necessarily end in the Gulag. Only Orwell’s antifascist polemics, Hitchens asserts, are less than memorable, perhaps because he tended to see fascism as “the distillation of everything that was most hateful and false in the society he already knew: a kind of satanic summa of military arrogance, racist solipsism, schoolyard bullying, and capitalist greed.” As a guided tour of Orwell’s work, this has its value, though a little too much of it is given over to quibbling with previous assessments by V.S. Pritchett, Bernard Crick, Raymond Williams, and others. More interesting is Hitchens’s steady effort to rescue Orwell from those who have tried to bend him to the neoconservative cause; against them, Hitchens suggests that Orwell would likely have flown independent socialist colors had he lived to see 1984. And the European left, Hitchens writes, would do well to remember Orwell’s insistence that a “socialist United States of Europe” was the only way to steer an independent course between American capitalism on one side and Soviet communism on the other, advice that remains sage today even if the game has shifted just a bit.
Admirers of Hitchens should find no fault with this appreciation, which is of an interesting piece with pal Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread (p. 627). Neither should admirers of Orwell.
A motley collection that illustrates both the obsessions and the daffiness of Right and Left during the ’90s.
Ubiquitous journalists Hitchens (Why Orwell Matters, p. 1195) and Caldwell (Senior Editor, The Weekly Standard), representing, respectively, the Left and the Right, selected the pieces to represent their own camps, and each wrote the introduction to the other’s selections (both are feather-light and forgettable). Not much for surprises here. From the Left come criticisms of our country’s support of friendly dictators, of intolerance (“An American society without liberalism,” writes Philip Green, “would be a sinkhole of racism, sexism and every form of unabashed bigotry”), of private militias, of child labor, of companies that mistreat workers, of capital punishment. From the Right come attacks on the Clintons and Kennedys (Peter Collier’s comments on the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. permit him to scourge the rest of the family, living and otherwise), on Janet Reno (she returned Elian to Communism), on anti-smokers and feminists. Occasionally, there is some overlap. Both sides take on The Bell Curve—Adolph Reed Jr., with skill and erudition; Andrew Sullivan, with surprising and surpassing ignorance. There are also some gems in both segments. On the Left: Susan Sontag’s poignant piece about Bosnia (1995); Christopher D. Cook’s hard look at “workfare” (1998); Ruth Conniff’s discoveries about the feckless “drug war” in Colombia (1992). On the Right: Francis X. Bacon’s Shakespearean satire of the Clintons (1994); William Monahan’s hilarious rant about the loss of his Right to Smoke (1999); Thomas Fleming’s piquant comments on a new edition of Strunk and White (1999). The award for Most Paranoid, Racist, and Sexist Piece goes to Kenneth Minogue (2001), who argues that “the radical feminist revolution is nothing less than a destruction of our civilization” and that women and people of color lack the “capacity to innovate.”
Good bedside reading, with pieces that are short, digestible, and sometimes soporific.
A nicely provocative, if disparate mix of field notes, book reviews, essays, and appreciations.
“An antique saying has it that a man’s life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty, and war,” the author explains of his title. Polemicist Hitchens (Why Orwell Matters, 2002, etc.) admits to having been fortunate in love, hungry but never starved, and farther away from dangerous action than many journalistic colleagues. Tying together these various pieces from The Atlantic Monthly, The Times Literary Supplement, and other journals is the Orwellian—in the good sense of the word—insistence on the need for writers to stand up and speak against the received wisdoms of left and right alike. Hitchens announces, for instance, a fierce and nuanced patriotism in the wake of 9/11. “One has to be capable of knowing when something is worth fighting for,” he insists. “One has to be capable of knowing an enemy when one sees one.” There’s nothing knee-jerk about his newfound positions. A former but unrepentant socialist, he attacks with equal attentiveness Noam Chomsky on the far left, David Irving on the far right, and a host of unfortunates who lie somewhere in between but are not sufficiently committed to ideas to gain his sympathy. At turns he writes about such heady matters as the historical revisionism now surrounding Winston Churchill (who, Hitchens ventures, made it possible for the US to be a global superpower); the political paradoxes that pepper the writings of Rudyard Kipling; the willful inaccuracies of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11; the mediocrity of contemporary politics, publishing, and media; the hamburgers of Middle America; and the sights and sounds of such uncongenial places as Pyongyang, Podgorica, and Baghdad, to say nothing of such uncongenial people as Mel Gibson and Osama bin Laden.
A well-turned collection with scarcely a false note. A pleasure for Hitchens’s many fans, and certainly no comfort for his enemies.
Put an -ism onto it, and whatever it is, noted polemicist and contrarian Hitchens (Love, Poverty, and War, 2005, etc.) is likely to decimate it. So he reveals in this pleasingly intemperate assault on organized religion.
Hitchens opens by recalling an epistemological crisis. Why, if God was great, did he need to be praised “so incessantly for doing what came to him naturally”? If Jesus could heal the blind, why didn’t he do away with blindness? Such doubts arrive to all proper questioners; sometimes they turn into C.S. Lewis or Malcolm Muggeridge, sometimes they turn into committed atheists. Hitchens, forthrightly in the latter camp, offers “four irreducible objections to religious faith” at the outset, namely that religion misrepresents human origins and those of the universe at large; that owing to this, religion combines “the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism”; that religion suppresses sexuality to a dangerous degree; and that religion is a species of wishful-thinking. And the author adds another twist of the knife: Religion makes people crazy, violent and ill-behaved. Just ask Salman Rushdie—or Giordano Bruno. Hitchens, a brave grappler quite obviously unafraid of giving offense, cheerfully takes on all comers, from mullahs to commissars to Mahatma Gandhi—and a noted televangelist who once challenged him with a thought experiment in which, in a foreign land, Hitchens is approached by a large group of men. Wouldn’t he feel more comfortable, the televangelist asked, to learn that they had just left a religious service? Citing personal experiences in cities only beginning with B—Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad—Hitchens answers emphatically in the negative. And all that’s before taking on Joseph Smith, and Mohammed, and . . .
It’s clear from page to page that Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, is having a grand time twitting the folks in the white collars and purple dresses, in the turbans and beehives. Like-minded readers will enjoy his arguments, too.
A lucid, gently critical view of the great president and empire-builder and most literate of politicians.
Barring the discovery of a trove of unknown documents, it’s unlikely that anyone will soon find anything new to say on the matter of Thomas Jefferson, and Hitchens (Love, Poverty, and War, 2004, etc.) ventures no discoveries. Yet he has a pleasing way of juxtaposing the known facts with a more nuanced view of his subject than the portraits offered by critics such as David McCullough and worshippers such as Dumas Malone. At the outset, for instance, Hitchens recalls the well-worn datum that Jefferson died on the very same day as his long-time rival John Adams, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence; Hitchens adds a nice note to the discussion, though, by citing a letter Jefferson had written only days earlier, in which he thundered, “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” It complicates matters, Hitchens allows, that the “author of America” ignored a fifth of the population when making such pronouncements, though he well recognized the depravity of slavery, and that the same brilliant radical did his best to ensure that the lands of the Louisiana Purchase would be open to the slave trade—and that the minds of Southerners would not be tainted by schools that taught abolitionist “anti-Missourism.” On many such controversial matters, Hitchens decides, Jefferson was motivated by what he thought to be the better interests of the Republic, though “in a smaller number, it is not difficult to read the promptings of personal self-interest.”
A politician driven by self-interest? The very thought in the matter of the master of Monticello tells us that we live in revisionist times. Hitchens’s slender study complements several lives of Jefferson while displacing none, and it’s well worth reading.
O rare Tom Paine! Prolific political pundit Hitchens (God Is Not Great, 2007, etc.) sizes up the “self-taught corset-maker and bridge-designer” who fomented rebellion across the world two centuries ago.
Paine’s Rights of Man—the ostensible center of this entry in Atlantic’s Books That Changed the World series—was, writes Hitchens, “both a trumpet of inspiration and a carefully wrought blueprint for a more rational and decent ordering of society,” as well as “an attempt to marry the ideas of the American and French Revolutions” with the aim of introducing them to Britain. Of course, America and France found manifold ways to shake off revolutionary rationality, and Paine quickly found himself a prophet without honor, even if William Pitt allowed that Paine was of course right. (Pitt added, though, that to encourage Paine’s opinions would be to invite revolution indeed.) Antimonarchical but at once radical and conservative—for instance, Paine “often wrote of economic inequalities as if they were natural or inevitable,” and he resisted the atheism of the French Revolution—Rights of Man asserted a few contradictions and foreshadowed, in some ways, the notion of a dictatorship of the proletariat, but it also pressed for a certain wide-ranging species of liberty, against which Hitchens contrasts Edmund Burke, whose own ideas of equality and liberty turned on the presence of a hereditary king. Paine’s vigorous and plain prose, Hitchens observes, has been taken as evidence of an uncouth nature, but Paine’s ideas were elevated, and of course widely influential—reverberating, in time, in the labor movement, women’s suffrage and Franklin Roosevelt’s famous speech after Pearl Harbor. Paine, as Hitchens notes in this lucid and fast-moving appreciation, has no proper memorial anywhere; this slender book makes a good start.
Less exuberant than Tom Collins’s essential book The Trouble with Tom (2005). Still, as with all Hitchens, well worth reading and arguing with.
Plenty of good reading in this 25th annual anthology, though it extends the definition of “essay” past the point of category.
In the foreword, series editor Robert Atwan addresses the technological changes that have, or haven’t, affected the essay: “What are blogs but today’s version of essays in disguise?” This volume’s editor, Vanity Fair contributor Hitchens (Hitch-22, 2010, etc.), offers an economic consideration that the year “was not a healthy one for the sorts of magazines that take the risk of publishing the essay form.” (The magazines represented in this installment include mostly the usual suspects, like the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic and the New York Review of Books, with only one real surprise: the Alaska Quarterly Review.) But what is that essay form? One of the pieces, “A Rake’s Progress” by Matt Labash, is a fairly standard—and very good—feature profile of former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry. Another, “Speaking in Tongues” by Zadie Smith, is a reprint of a lecture she delivered at the New York Public Library. James Wood’s concluding “A Fine Range” is an extended book review of a couple of recent collections of George Orwell’s essays. Among the pieces that would be more conventionally classified as essays are illuminating appreciations of John Updike (by Ian McEwan) and William F. Buckley (by Garry Wills). Jane Kramer’s “Me, Myself, and I,” about reading Montaigne, cuts to the heart of the essay and the essence of coming to terms with life and death through writing, while Brian Doyle’s short, sharp “Irreconcilable Dissonance” uses divorce to make provocative comments on marriage. Other notable contributors include David Sedaris, Steven Pinker, Walter Isaacson and Phillip Lopate.
A wide variety of quality writing, both reflective and reported.
A new collection of essays from Hitchens (Hitch-22: A Memoir, 2010, etc.), his first since 2004.
Whether on the invasion of Iraq or the merits of Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction, master controversialist Hitchens has an informed opinion. Here he gathers a hefty helping of work over the last few years, published in venues such as the Atlantic and Vanity Fair. Sometimes his pieces concern passing matters, though they are seldom ephemeral themselves; more often he writes about what he wishes to write about, topics that require weighty but not dense (and usually not heavy-handed) consideration. On Gore Vidal, for instance, Hitchens gets in a lovely zinger worthy of Vidal himself: “The price of knowing him was exposure to some of his less adorable traits, which included his pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong.” Hitchens balances old interests with new discoveries; he was one of the first to write at length about Stieg Larsson, for instance, whose death by “causes that are symptoms of modern life” he endorses. He also turns to his long-standing fascination for the totalitarian mind. He characterizes Adolf Hitler as holding opinions that are “trite and bigoted and deferential,” while “the prose in Mein Kampf is simply laughable in its pomposity.” Hitchens revels in theoretical questions and in stirring up trouble: His pieces on religion seem calculated to offend as many believers as possible, which is of course the point. Still, he is also practical, offering up some fine advice on how to argue points over a Georgetown dinner table or down at the local watering hole—just say, “Yes, but not in the South?” and, he avers, “You will seldom if ever be wrong, and you will make the expert perspire.”
Vintage Hitchens. Argumentative and sometimes just barely civil—another worthy collection from this most inquiring of inquirers.